Dressing the Obamas on Film: How The 'Southside With You' Costume Designer Defined the Power Couple
Costume designer Megan Spatz on how she used clothing to create the characters in the charming date night movie.
Barack and Michelle Obama may be President and First Lady now, but once upon a time, they were just bright young lawyers in Chicago trying to navigate their way through life — and the dating scene. Writer-director Richard Tanne explores that small but illustrative part of their past in his first feature, Southside with You, zeroing in on their first date (even if Michelle insisted it was not a date at the time).
Since the romance movie, which debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, centers entirely on their first outing together, that meant they’d only be wearing one outfit throughout the film. Tasked with dressing a young Barack (starring Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter) was costume designer Megan Spatz, who says she felt an "immense amount of pressure," especially because Michelle "is such a style icon now — it was scary."
Spatz, who only had a $2000 budget, began her research by looking at the overall style of the late '80s before looking at more specific images of the duo.
"We talked a lot about color and simplicity and I think that the design really stems more from editing than building, because we wanted them to be kind of like a blank slate," the costume designer tells Pret-a-Reporter. "We didn't want to prescribe too much from what they were wearing."
FIRST LOOK: Sketches of Michelle and Barack Obama's outfits for Southside with You by costume designer Megan Spatz. (Photos: Courtesy)
For Michelle, Spatz wanted to keep her look "a bit more professional" since she was a lawyer but also "a little flirty" since she was going on her so-called non-date. "We hunted for a long time to kind of figure out what color her blouse would be and ended up with this warm peach color because one, it had a really nice summer, youthful vibe to it, and two, it just looked great with her skin tone," explains Spatz of how the silk top she designed ended up on the big screen.
From there, Spatz paired the blouse with a cream pencil skirt from Chicago’s Pilsen Vintage shop and wedges that were found at Goodwill. Says Spatz of the footwear choice, "We didn’t want to alienate an audience by having them focus on how cool her shoes were."
Young Michelle’s ensemble was complemented by her suitor's, of course.
The designer outfitted Barack in a vintage blue-and-white geo-print shirt and khaki pants, and sneakers she found on Etsy. To get a sense of Barack’s laid back style, Spatz referred to a photo of him where he was visiting Kenya and wearing a short-sleeve button-down shirt, khakis and tennis shoes. "It was this wonderfully endearing outfit," says Spatz.
OLD SCHOOL: A family photograph of Barack Obama with his step-grandmother Sarah Obama on a 1987 visit to Kenya stands on a table in her house on January 12, 2008 in Kogelo, western Kenya. (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
She adds: "We didn’t want to go for that like more hippie style vibe that you can see in some pictures because again, we thought it was going to be distracting."
The biggest challenge for Spatz was "taking two huge political figures and trying to portray them in a non-political way, and taking a period piece and trying to not make it so much about the period." Instead, the designer's main goal was to "make it about two people falling in love."
Southside with You opens in theaters Aug. 26.
DATE NIGHT: Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as Michelle and Barack Obama in Southside With You. (Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute)